Book List of the Week

André Leon Talley’s Book List: Books Are a Man’s Best Friend

By Steve Kroeter September 10, 2013
André Leon Talley, contributing editor: Vogue (New York); international editor: Numéro Uno (Moscow)
View André Leon Talley’s Book List

Fashion editor, author, and icon André Leon Talley talks to Designers & Books about black lace, Madame Bovary, favorite fashion memoirs—and his most recent book, Little Black Dress (2013, Skira Rizzoli), a tribute to a great wardrobe classic. Talley will speak as the first of the season’s Fashion Icons series with Fern Mallis at the 92nd Street Y in New York on Tuesday, October 8, at 8:00 p.m.

Designers & Books: The family members you grew up with, and the places where you spent you childhood, could hardly be more different from the people in your daily life now and the places where you now live and work. Yet you speak eloquently about how who you are hasn’t changed. What’s the constant that ties the vast extremes in your life together?


André Leon Talley, Little Black Dress, 2013 (Skira Rizzoli)

André Leon Talley: I carry with me in memory the happy days of childhood and my early youth, growing up in my grandmother's house. Humble, full of love, and great food.

I also carry the constant of a very strict upbringing to keep me in the balance. I owe everything to my family in North Carolina: aunts, uncles, cousins, teachers, and also the marvelous contribution of my mother and father, as well as every single school teacher I had in public schools.

My grandmother taught me discipline, responsibility, and how important faith is in one’s life. It’s the core of my happy childhood days in my grandmother's humble house in Durham, North Carolina. Aretha Franklin sings a song, “How I Got Over? My Soul Looks Back and Wonders How I Got Over?” This is a song I often sing in my head, when situations in life are tough, when there’s turbulence in daily life.

D&B: In the introduction to your book list, you say that the first book you read and loved as a child was Madame Bovary—a pretty significant work for a child to take on. Do you remember how you came upon it—or who introduced you to it? And what did you love about it?

ALT: I discovered Madame Bovary in an English class. Simple as that. I was fortunate to have great teachers in my junior high and high school.

D&B: When did you first become aware that fashion was going to play such an important role in your life?

ALT: I never thought fashion was going to play such a role in my life. I dreamed about fashion as I was constantly reading everything on fashion—Vogue, Bazaar, Sunday New York Times. I was reading everything on weekends, on Sundays, about fashion. I discovered one day in the library (I think the public Library on main Street), John Fairchild's great book The Fashionable Savages. It is here that perhaps this book changed my life. I was in high school when I discovered that book and then, who would have thunk it?—he one day became my boss.

D&B: Did you ever think of becoming a designer?

ALT: I never thought of being a designer. I would not want the pressure. Never has it been a thought in my mind.

Chado Ralph Rucci, gros de Londres “Infanta” dress. Silk with chenille embroidery; fall/winter haute couture 2006. Courtesy of Chado Ralph Rucci, New York
Dolce & Gabbana, décolleté sheath dress. Embroidered lace and silk satin; c. 1990s. Courtesy of Maureen Dowd, Washington, D.C.
Pierre Cardin, tiered dress. Silk and paper taffeta; c. 1960s. Courtesy of Dr. Lisa Airan, New York
Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, 1961. Audrey Hepburn © Paramount Pictures/MTV (from Little Black Dress)

D&B: With the possible exception of Nancy Mitford’s The Sun King, none of the books on your list touch on fashion at all. What fashion books would you recommend for students interested in careers in fashion?

ALT: I don’t recommend fashion books to anyone. Each individual must find his own way. There’s only one great fashion memoir: DV by Diana Vreeland. That is one book I would recommend. Also, Vreeland’s great book edited by Jackie Onassis, Allure. You can learn about fashion through history, and narrative in novels. Anna Karenina is a great source of high fashion for me. So is Marlene Dietrich, a biography written by her daughter, Anna Riva. Selective choice is how I learned about fashion.

D&B: In your autobiography, A.L.T., you recount the many ways in which your grandmother and Diana Vreeland were major influences on you. In what ways were they similar—and in what ways were they different?

André Leon Talley and Diana Vreeland, 1974. © Photo: Bill Cunningham for the New York Times

ALT: My grandmother and Mrs. Vreeland were similar in that they believed that the quality of life is based on core values—kindness, compassion, and discipline. Both believed in rouge, and maintentance. The best shoes, the best gloves, one could afford, and clothes that had simple lines. The only difference was one was a maid, one was the high empress of fashion. Both worked hard all their lives, and believed in giving of themselves to others. They both went to the hairdresser, Mrs. Vreeland, often three times a week, my grandmother every two weeks. And what I loved the most, both packed their suitcases, lining the clothes with layers of white tissue paper!

Mrs. Vreeland loved the art of housekeeping; so did my grandmother. Mrs. Vreeland had young students dusting each book on a bookshelf, my grandmother had me waxing the wood floors with Johnson’s Paste Wax. Scrubbing porches with suds and water until the front porch glistened. One had a vast wardrobe of very beautiful French clothes and custom-made shoes. The other, my grandmother, got by on her modest means and was still the best-dressed woman in our family. I’m not sure others in my family would agree, but to me, she was. She loved simple clothes of good quality.

D&B: Of all the options you had, how did you choose the particular little black dress that ended up on the cover of Little Black Dress?

ALT: I selected the Chanel dress, designed by Karl Lagerfeld, worn by Anna Wintour, because it is an expression of pure simplicity of line, and the nuance of a great timeless dress. Its was at the time, the Ford of that collection. It is very difficult to make a dress that simple so beautiful. The subtle bouclé wool, the neat sleeves. Its has the lines of timeless elegance. It was purchased by Anna Wintour in 2006.

Marc Jacobs and Rachel Feinstein, 2012. © 

D&B: What do you think of as the men’s equivalent of the “little black dress”?

ALT: There is no men's equivalent to the little black dress. If director Lee Daniels wears silk pajamas to work, directing Lee Daniels’ The Butler, that is the evolution of men and liberation.

If Marc Jacobs wears a black lace Comme des Garçons shirt, that is great. I suppose in my mind, anything that is not the norm, in terms of modern fashion for men. Then again, a great dinner suit or smoking jacket, by Tom Ford in clean elegant, severe lines has the same impact as silk pajamas on Lee Daniels, or lace on Marc Jacobs.

D&B: In her essay in Little Black Dress, Maureen Dowd lovingly recounts “the mythic power” of Natalie Woods’s little black dress in the movie Love with the Proper Stranger. Which woman in contemporary culture in which little black dress stands out in your mind?

ALT: The one black dress that for me remains constant is the black wool dress my grandmother kept that she wore to funerals. It had simple lines, and it was very, very elegant. If there was a funeral in warm weather, I don’t recall what she wore then. I do remember it at her mother’s funeral, ( I was very young) and it was the same dress she wore to her son’s funeral two or three decades later.

D&B: Which piece in your wardrobe has the most sentimental meaning for you?

ALT: I have no sentimental piece in my wardrobe. Not one.


André Leon Talley in caftan designed by Ralph Rucci. Photo: Samantha Storto

Photographs by Adam Kuehl, © SCAD unless otherwise noted. All images, with the exception of photo by Samantha Storto (above) are from © Little Black Dress by André Leon Talley, reproduced by permission from Skira Rizzoli, 2013.

You can view André Leon Talley’s book list, our 5th fashion commentator’s book list, and also an excerpt from Maureen Dowd’s essay for Little Black Dress on Designers & Books.

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